We all went to secondary school or high school, and were taught the basics of what nutrients the body needs. But when you think about it, do we really understand how the body uses these nutrients? You look at the pack of a box of corn flakes, and it all just confuses you. Plus, everybody you meet has something to say in respect to what’s good and what’s bad. But when we go back to the basics, it’s easier to understand how the nutrients from food are used up by our bodies. And then we can take our understanding one step further to help control our diet, while still getting all the nutrition we need.
If you can recall, we learned about the five basic nutrient groups:
Usually, foods contain a combination of these nutrients in varying proportions.
I know we all hear this a lot. Are carbs bad for you? Good for you? Somewhere in the middle? Well, carbs contribute to the number of calories in food, but understand this: carbs are different from calories. Carbs consist mostly of sugars, starches, and fiber. They provide energy (which is what calories are), and the body needs energy to do even the most basic of actions like breathe. If they energy consumed is more than the energy burned, the body stores the excess as fat. It’s basic math.
1 gram of carbohydrates equals 4 calories. I bet you didn’t know that. However, there are still two major kinds of carbs: simple and complex. More energy is spent in digesting complex carbs than simple carbs, so they are seen as ‘better’ carbs because your overall energy consumed minus energy expended digesting is lower. This is where things like whole grain bread and brown rice fit in.
One important fact about carbs that the low carb diets don’t tell you is that carbohydrates are the brain’s ONLY source of energy. What does this mean? If you’re not eating it, you’re probably not thinking straight (my interpretation). But are carbohydrates the only source of overall energy for the body? No. Protein and fat also provide energy.
1 gram of protein equals 4 calories as well. Yes, that’s the same as carbs. One thing our Science teachers may have failed to mention is that protein also provides energy. Because of this missed information, we label all proteins as good and all carbs as bad. But the difference is that aside from energy, protein also provides other tremendous benefits:
• Build and repair skin, muscles, organs, bones
• Some proteins act as antibodies to protect the body against disease
Since protein provides the same amount of energy as carbs, if the body is desperate enough, it can survive without the energy from carbs (well, you’ll probably be dumber, but you’ll survive). However, if you skimp on both carbs and fat, your body will use your protein mainly for energy so you’d be losing any additional benefits protein provides.
Because the word ‘fat’ means both a nutrient, and ‘chubbiness’, we combine these two meanings in our heads and interpret them as one. So let me start by saying fat is not bad, it’s actually very important. However, fat is also the nutrient with the highest number of calories per gram, so we are not completely far from the truth when we think we need to limit our intake. 1 gram of fat equals a whopping 9 calories.
Fat does serve some cool functions that you may not know of:
• Your cell walls are made of fat, and so it helps with the development of cells
• Fats help transport vitamins like vitamin A, D, E, and K within the body
• Fat provides linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid for growth, healthy skin and metabolism
• Food aromas are usually stored in fat
So if you cut out the fat, you’re limiting good smelling food. I don’t know about you, but that screams ‘Problem!’ for me.
One type of fatty acid, Omega-3, is critical for our health, but our bodies cannot manufacture it. So we have to make sure it is a part of our diet. Omega-3 is found mainly in fish and nuts. When you see calorie information on a box of corn flakes, it is a combination of the carbohydrate, protein, and fat content.
MINERALS AND VITAMINS
When I say minerals to a non-Nigerian, they immediately think of mineral resources like metal and precious stone. When I say minerals to a Nigerian, we mostly immediately think of soda. Minerals and vitamins provide no energy. However, they provide the body with so many other great benefits. Each individual mineral or vitamin has its own benefits, but here are a few:
• Calcium – Promotes strong bones and teeth, blood clotting, and nerve functions
• Phosphorus – Promotes enzyme activity to regulate metabolism
• Sodium and Potassium – Regulates body fluids and blood pressure
• Iron – Transports oxygen to the cells and utilizes oxygen within the cells
• Vitamin A – Protects from infection; promotes skin, bone, and organ growth; promotes better vision; and may possibly reduce the risk of some cancers
• Vitamin E – Protects cell tissue; acts as a bodyguard
• Vitamin K – Develops proteins for blood clotting
• Vitamin B2 – Promotes metabolism
• Folic Acid – Forms haemoglobin for healthy blood, helps develop new cells
I could go on and on, but you get the gist. Minerals and vitamins are invaluable, so never underestimate their worth.